From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories, an anthology edited by John Joseph Adams

Fiction

Christopher Raven

Ghosts by Gaslight

This story also appears in Ghosts by Gaslight, edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers, which is available now.

Why had I come back to Collingswood? That was what I asked myself, standing on the path that led to the main school building, a structure built of gray stone and shadowed by oaks that had stood for a hundred years. I had ridden the cart from the train station, just as I had so many years ago at the beginning of each term. Then, I had been accompanied by a trunk almost as large as I was, filled with clothes and books. Now I carried only a small suitcase. It contained another walking suit, a dress suitable for dinner, and toiletries. I would only be here for one night. Why had I come back? Because I had been invited to give a speech. Surely that was all.

“Lucy!” It was Millicent Tolliver, walking down the path toward me.

“Hello, Tollie!” I called, then wondered if she would mind the schoolgirl nickname. She looked very much like the schoolgirl she had been, with an untidy blouse and, I could see when she gave me an enthusiastic hug, an ink stain on one cheek. Only the length of her skirt and the bun of hair at the back of her head, which threatened to come down at any moment, marked her as, not a schoolgirl any longer, but one of the teachers. I had wondered how many of the girls I knew would be coming back for Old Girls’ Day, but I knew Tollie would be here. Unlike the rest of us, she had remained at Collingswood.

“Eleanor Prescott is here, and you won’t believe who else—Mary Davenport.” She grabbed my suitcase from me and said, “We’re upstairs, in our old room, all four of us.”

“Why did they put us up there?” I followed her across the front hall and up the staircase. I remembered it echoing with boots. We used to run down it, almost late for French or geography lessons on the first floor. The school felt so empty, without the noise of girls chattering and whispering, without the smell of cabbage that used to float, like a vague miasma, through the halls. I kept expecting the old sounds, the old smells, but there was only the silence of summer vacation, and beeswax.

But there, at the top of the stairs, was a familiar sight: the portrait of Lord Collingswood in his riding jacket, with a horse and hound at his side, holding a riding whip as though to show who was master. He stared down over his long nose, no doubt shocked by the sight of generations of schoolgirls running through his halls. We had inherited the tradition of calling him Old Nosey.

“Oh, I asked for our old room. When I found out that all of you would be here, I asked Miss Halloway if we could share, and of course she said yes. She was the one who first put us together, remember?”

How well I remembered! The four of us glaring at one another. It was our final year at Collingswood, and we were assigned to room with our mortal enemies. I hated Eleanor Prescott, with her French dresses and stuck-up ways, and despised Mary Davenport for her timidity, her tendency to start every sentence with “Well, I don’t really know, but …” And I had no use for Millicent Tolliver, who was a scholarship girl like me, but enthusiastically tried to curry favor with Eleanor Prescott and her circle.

Miss Halloway herself had greeted us. She was the new headmistress and was said to have advanced educational ideas. “This will be quite a treat for you, girls,” she said. “I’ve put you in the room Lady Collingswood herself slept in, a hundred years ago. It was used for storage under Miss Temple, but we have so many girls this term that we needed all the available space, and it cleaned up quite beautifully. I even found a portrait of Lady Collingswood while we were inventorying the attic and brought it down for you. You know she was the one who founded Collingswood school. I thought she might inspire you to greater academic achievements.” She looked particularly at Eleanor, who preferred outdoor games to studying and cared more about tennis than Latin.

We looked at Lady Collingswood doubtfully. She had clear, pale skin and auburn ringlets cascading over her shoulders. Her eyes were grayish blue, and she wore a dress of the same color with lace at the sleeves. She was smiling at the painter and playing with a small dog in her lap. I would not have called her beautiful, exactly. Her face was too particular, too individual, for that. But she looked intelligent, and much nicer than Old Nosey out in the hall.

“She was a patroness of the arts and painted and wrote poetry herself. Also an excellent gardener—the Lady Collingswood rose is named after her. I found a book on the history of Collingswood in the attic. Perhaps you would like to look at it?”

We murmured politely. We had no interest in the history of Collingswood. Despite our enmity, we all knew what the others were thinking. Wasn’t it almost time for tea?

Despite her advanced ideas, Miss Halloway evidently understood schoolgirls and their stomachs. “It will be in my office when you’re interested. Tea is in the dining hall in half an hour. Come down when you’ve finished unpacking. I’ll see you there, girls.”

“When did you say tea was?” asked Eleanor Prescott. I stepped back, startled. I had been absorbed in memories, but this Eleanor was not the girl I had known. She was Lady Thornton-Smythe, the Terror of the Tories. She looked even more formidable than she had as a schoolgirl, tall and elegant, with elaborate loops of blond hair. I could see a feathered hat on the bed, and I recognized her dress as a model from Worth. It must have cost a small fortune.

“Lucy!” she said now. “How perfectly lovely to see you.” She kissed me on both cheeks. “I give copies of The Modern Diana to everyone I know. I tell them it’s a perfectly scandalous book, all about free love and professions for women.”

“Honestly, at first I was afraid to read it,” said Mary Davenport, smiling and giving me a hug. “But it really does have an important message. All about using the talents God gave us.” She was as short and plump as she had been, although her cheeks were redder from what she had called, in a letter to me, her “country life.” There were gray strands in her hair. She had married her father’s curate, who was now the Reverend Charles Beaumont, with a living near York. She had come back to visit “dear old Collingswood” while he attended an ecclesiastical conference in London.

Mary had three children living, and one buried. Eleanor had no children, which she did not seem to regret. “Laws to alleviate the oppression of man—and woman—are my children,” she had written to me. And Tollie had never married. All this I knew from letters I had received over the years—not many, but we had never entirely lost touch. I suppose what we experienced that last year had bound us together.

I had sent them letters about my own life, my relationship with Louis, his death from tuberculosis, my own efforts to raise little Louie, who had his father’s complaint. The Modern Diana had sold well enough that I had sent him to a sanatorium in Switzerland, but the money would not last forever. I was grateful that Collingswood had paid for my train ticket and offered me an honorarium for my speech at the Old Girls’ Dinner. Would I have come back otherwise?

It was Tollie, of course, who said what the rest of us were thinking but would not say. “I’m so glad we’re all here. Now we can talk about Christopher Raven.”

#

Tollie dreamed of him last, but of course she was the first to say anything.

“Lucy, wake up! I had the strangest dream.”

I opened my eyes, then closed them again. “Go away. Can’t you see it’s still dark?”

“But I dreamed of a man. Have you ever dreamed of a man? With curling black hair and a white blouse—at least, it looked like a blouse, like something a woman would wear. Or a pirate. Maybe he was a pirate? Except that he was saying something—like poetry. I was sitting on the parlor sofa, except it was so much nicer than the sofa we have now, and he bowed to me and kissed my hand!”

“You’ve dreamed about him too!” said Eleanor, sitting up in bed. “Then I’m going to stop dreaming about him. I don’t want to share my dreams with Messy Millie.”

“Well, I’ve been dreaming about him for a week,” I said. “So you’ve been sharing your dream with the both of us. How common is that? And what about Mary? Maybe she’s been dreaming about him as well.”

Mary, who had just opened her eyes, pulled the blanket over her head.

“Have you been dreaming about him too?” asked Eleanor. “Mary, answer me!”

“Yes,” came the muffled answer. “For a week.”

“Did he kiss your hand?” asked Tollie.

Mary looked out from under the blanket. Her face was bright red. “No. We were in this room, but it had a big bed in it. And he kissed my shoulder.”

“He hasn’t kissed me,” I said. “He just takes me walking around the garden, and he says things—about my hair and eyes. Poetry, like Tollie said.”

“Well, he’s kissed me,” said Eleanor. “We were in the tower, looking out toward Collington, and he told me that I changed like the moon, or something like that, and he kissed me on the mouth.”

That day, for the first time, we sat together in the front parlor, which was reserved for the older girls, trying to figure it out.

“Maybe he’s a ghost, and we’re being haunted,” said Mary. Her father was a member of the Society for Psychical Research.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Eleanor. “There’s no such thing as a ghost.”

“Oh yes, there is,” said Tollie. “My aunt Harriet was haunted by my uncle, who had lost a leg at sea. She said the ghost went thump, thump, thump on its wooden leg, up and down the hallways at night.”

“Ugh,” said Mary. “You’re making me shiver!”

“But even if he is a ghost,” I said, “whose ghost is he? And why is he haunting the four of us?”

“We don’t know that he is,” said Eleanor. “Maybe the other girls have had dreams as well, and they’re just not talking about it.”

So we went around asking the other girls about what they had dreamed the night before. None of them had dreamed of a man with curling black hair, or brown skin that made him look like a foreigner, or black eyes that looked as though they were laughing at you, although one of them had dreamed of her brother who was in India.

No, it was just us four.

We made a pact. Each morning we would compare notes. We would tell each other what we had dreamed, all the details, no matter how embarrassing. And we would try to remember what the man had said, those poetic words that seemed to slip out of our heads on waking, like water.

#

“He told me that my eyes are like bright stars,” said Tollie.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” said Eleanor. “Your eyes are like eyes. He told me that my hair was like a fire burning down a forest, except he used different words. And they rhymed with something, but I don’t remember what.”

“You have to try to remember,” I said. “I wish all of you had Mary’s memory.”

In my notebook, I had written down what we dreamed each night, and the fragments of what we thought must be poetry:

Eleanor: tower, dark but moonlight
“the cascade of your gown”
something about “sweet surrender” and “sweetly die”
Mary: in front of fireplace, kissed neck “like a swan’s,” “proud and fair”
“luxuriance of your hair”
Tollie: passed in hallway and dropped letter
“hide it in your bosom, sweetheart”
“the moon’s a secret lover, as am I”
Lucy: kissed several times, passionately
“elements of love” (but hard to hear, could be “dalliance of love”?)

By this time, we had all been kissed, and we blushed as we told each other.

“It was—soft,” said Mary. “This is wrong, isn’t it? Even if it’s just a dream.”

“Forceful,” said Eleanor. “I don’t think he would have stopped if I’d wanted him to. How can it be wrong if it’s only a dream?”

“Is that what it’s like, when boys kiss?” asked Tollie.

“No, it’s nothing like that,” said Eleanor, who had boy cousins. “That’s disgusting.”

“I don’t think we’re any closer to working out who he is,” I said. “We know he’s a poet, because of what he’s saying. I mean, neck proud and fair, and all that. So, if he is a ghost, we need to find out if there were any poets who died at Collingswood.”

“There’s no such thing as a ghost,” said Eleanor.

“What about Miss Halloway’s book?” asked Tollie.

I was sent to ask Miss Halloway for the book, as the one most likely to, as Eleanor said, “read boring stuff.”

“Of course, Lucy,” she said. “I’m glad you’re interested in the history of the school. Some of the other girls, well, they’ll graduate and get married. But I think you are capable of doing something different, some sort of intellectual work. I hope you’ll think about that. There are so many opportunities for women nowadays that did not exist when I was your age.”

“Yes, Miss Halloway,” I said, hoping to escape a lecture. Miss Halloway’s advanced educational theories, we had discovered, involved teaching girls the subjects boys were usually taught, and she had a tendency to lecture us about the advancement of women. I did not quite escape one, but it was not as long as I had feared. I closed the door of her office with “and you really should think about a university education, Lucy” in my ears.

“And who’s going to read that?” asked Eleanor, when I had brought The History of Collingswood House, from the Crusades to the Present Day to our room. The book had been covered with dust, and now I was covered with it as well.

“How many pages is it?” asked Mary.

I had already looked. “Seven hundred and ninety-two. And there’s no index.”

By the way they all looked at me, it was obvious who was going to read The History of Collingswood House. After all, I was the one who won the prizes in composition, who was at the top of the English class.

I was only on page one hundred and fifty-seven the morning Mary woke up gasping. Although we asked and prodded, she would not tell us about her dream.

“I can’t,” she said. “We were in the bedroom again. He—I just can’t.”

We were sitting on Eleanor’s bed, in our nightgowns, as we did every morning for our conferences.

“What was it like?” I asked. I think we all knew, even then, what had happened. Tollie and I had grown up in villages, near farms and animals. And Eleanor had heard the servants gossip.

“I’m sorry. I really don’t think I can talk about it.”

“Was it so frightening?” asked Tollie, leaning forward.

“Not frightening. Just—I can’t, all right?” And we could get nothing else out of her.

Later that day, I looked with dismay at The History of Collingswood House. I could not face another list of who had come to visit Collingswood in the Year of Our Lord blankety blank.

“Look, stupid book,” I said. “Just tell me what I want to know, all right?” I closed my eyes and opened the book at random. I looked down at the pages I had opened. There it was:

In the autumn of 1817, Lord Collingswood invited the poet Christopher Raven, whom he had met in London, to Collingswood House. Lady Collingswood was taken with the handsome youth, who was supposed to look like an English Adonis, although some critics asserted that he wrote like a second-rate Shelley. The Collingswood library, which was extensive, had fallen into a state of disarray, and Lord Collingswood hoped that Raven would catalogue it. However, the two men quarreled before the work got underway, and the poet left in the middle of the night to join Shelley and Byron in Switzerland. He was overtaken by the snows, and is supposed to have perished in the Alpine passes. Lady Collingswood, who had a tender heart, particularly for poets, artists, and small dogs, was said to have been inconsolable for weeks.

I had found a poet. And he sounded like the right poet. Adonis had been Greek. He would have had curling black hair, the kind they call hyacinthine.

“I think I’ve found him,” I told Eleanor, Mary, and Tollie that afternoon. “His name is Christopher Raven. He was a poet, and I think he was in love with Lady Collingswood. And maybe she was in love with him.”

“Why do you think we’re dreaming about him?” asked Tollie. “If someone had dreamed about him before, we would have known about it, wouldn’t we? I mean, he would be the Collingswood ghost or something. It would have been like calling the picture Old Nosey. Everyone would have known.”

“Maybe it’s because we’re in her room,” I said. “The book only says that she was taken with him, but I bet all the things he says to us are the things he said to her. I mean, seriously, none of us has a neck like a swan’s, do we? And hair like a forest fire—she had red hair. I bet no one else has slept in her room for half a century. That’s why we’re dreaming about him, when no other girls have.”

“The question is, what do we do now?” asked Eleanor. “He doesn’t scare me, but that dream Mary had—yes, I know you can’t talk about it, but we all know what it was about. If we’re dreaming about him and Lady Collingswood, where is this going?”

#

Where indeed. I’ll give you this, Christopher Raven. I have known love since those days as a schoolgirl at Collingswood, and you loved her as passionately as any poet loves a woman. There is always some selfishness in such a love, always some inclination to turn your love into poetry. But when you walked with her down the garden paths, when you stood beside her on the tower and looked out over the countryside, when you called her the moon and said you were the tide, following her motions, you loved her as passionately as poets love, who are always thinking of the next line. We experienced it, the four of us—experienced that love when we were only schoolgirls and should have been attending to our lessons. We felt the kisses in the darkness, your hand on her shoulder, your fingers running along her collarbone. We felt you slip off her dress of grayish-blue silk and felt what we should not have, a passion we were not ready for.

We changed, in those weeks. We grew languorous, as though we were always walking in a dream. We could not attend to our lessons. Eleanor gave up tennis, and she and Tollie used to sit in our room, talking in whispers about their dreams of the night before. Mary took to praying throughout the day. She told us she was convinced that the dreams were wrong, but like the rest of us, she did not want them to end. She developed dark shadows under her eyes, and sometimes she would jump for no reason, as though she had been frightened by a sound that the rest of us could not hear. And what about me? I was as dreamy as the rest, but my lethargy frightened me, and Mary’s condition was a constant source of worry. I felt as though we were all slipping away into some dream land, losing touch with the prosaic world of school.

Finally, Miss Halloway spoke to me. “Lucy,” she said, putting a hand on my shoulder as I leaned over a composition book, tracing the letters CR over and over with my pencil, “what is going on with you girls? Yesterday, Millicent almost fell asleep in Latin, and I’m told that Mary is starting to look, and behave, quite oddly. Is something happening that I should know about?”

I should have told her then, but how could I bear to lose those kisses, the black eyes looking into mine and whispering words sweeter than I had ever heard before, calling me “goddess” and “love”?

“I think we’re staying up too late talking,” I told her, and looking at me doubtfully, she left it at that.

And so it might have continued, if Eleanor had not woken up one morning screaming.

“Lord Collingswood killed him!” she cried. “He found them together and hit him with his cane! There was blood everywhere!” And then she began to sob into her hands. I had never imagined that Eleanor Prescott could weep, and the sight sent a shiver down my spine.

The next night it was Tollie, and then me. We all dreamed the discovery, the terrifying blow to the back of the head. We all saw blood pooling on the floorboards. And then nothing—that was where the dreams ended. Only Mary was spared. Perhaps the ghost decided that she had seen enough. Certainly she could not take any more.

This time we were all summoned to Miss Halloway’s office. “What in the world is going on with you girls?” she asked. “I’ve heard reports of moans in the night and screams early in the morning. And you all look as though you haven’t slept for the past week.”

“Miss Halloway,” I told her, “we’re being haunted. By a ghost.” And then I told her everything.

“Good Lord,” she said. “That such things should be going on right under my nose! The idea that you’re being haunted is ridiculous. There’s no such thing as a ghost, Lucy. However, the atmosphere of the room, together with what you read about Collingswood House, may have prompted these dreams. I will move you out of that room immediately.”

We were moved into Miss Halloway’s own room, for observation. But the dreams did not stop.

“Blood, and then nothing,” said Tollie. “I can’t see anything after he falls down. Blood on the floor, and then it’s as though everything just goes dark.”

“But I can still hear something,” said Eleanor. “Like Tollie’s uncle: thump, thump, thump.

“Miss Halloway,” I said, “Lord Collingswood hit him in the front hall, and then there was this sound, as Eleanor said. I think he dragged the body down the stairs. To the cellar.”

“I think it’s time to summon a brain specialist,” said Miss Halloway.

We all stood looking at her, silently—Mary looked especially reproachful. “Oh, all right, girls,” she said. “The cellar it is.”

#

“There’s nothing down here,” said Tollie.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” said Eleanor. “We haven’t even checked for a priest’s hole yet. Hillingdon has one, and a secret staircase. Of course, some people don’t have such things in their houses, but I’m quite familiar with them, I assure you.”

For the first time in several weeks, I would have liked to hit Eleanor Prescott, but it was obvious from the shrillness of her voice that she was both excited and afraid. And she was actually doing something useful, walking along each wall and knocking carefully, up and down, listening for anything unusual. These were the foundations of the house, which went back to Norman times. I knew that from having read The History of Collingswood House, at least to page one hundred and fifty-seven. They seemed so solid.

But Eleanor said, “Can’t you see that the cellar isn’t as large as the house?” And she was right.

Of course, Tollie had exaggerated in saying that there was nothing in the cellar. In addition to the usual things one finds in cellars, such as the coal box and stacks of wood, old brooms, a tin bucket, it was filled with the detritus of a girls’ school: broken chairs, a pair of crutches, boxes of sports equipment. There were skis stacked against the wall, and an astonishing number of broken tennis rackets.

“There!” said Eleanor. “Can you hear it?”

And we could. Against one wall stood a tall bookshelf that had no doubt once been in the library, but was now water-stained and covered with dust. On the shelves stood boxes containing what looked like onions, but labeled “tulips—early” “late” “Rembrandt,” pairs of ice skates leaning against one another, and a few books that were too damaged for use even by schoolgirls.

“That’s where old Amias keeps his bulbs,” said Miss Halloway. “He says this is the perfect place to store them.”

“Well, there’s a space behind it,” said Eleanor. And indeed, we had all heard the echo when she knocked.

“All right, girls,” said Miss Halloway. “Let’s see what’s behind that shelf.”

Mary held the lamp while the rest of us helped Miss Halloway stack the books and skates and boxes of tulip bulbs on the floor. “It’s going to be heavy,” she said. “Should I summon Amias and some of his boys?” We all shook our heads. I think we wanted to see what was behind as quickly—and as privately—as possible. “All right then,” she said. “Put your backs into it.”

Once, while moving the shelf, as we were taking a momentary rest, we looked at one another—Tollie, Eleanor, and me. When I saw their white faces, I knew mine must be white as well. The lamplight jumped up and down on the walls, no doubt because Mary’s hand was trembling. But Miss Halloway looked grim and determined, and I decided then that I rather admired her, despite her boring lectures. All things considered, it would not be a terrible thing to be like Miss Halloway.

When the shelf had been moved, slowly and awkwardly, back from the wall, we could see that it had covered an arched opening—through which we saw only blackness.

I will give us the credit to say that we all, including Mary Davenport, stepped through the archway together. It opened into a smaller room, the other part of the cellar, which must once have held wine. There were still wine racks on the walls.

There, in the circle of light cast by the lamp, was the skeleton of a man. We could still see the shreds of his white shirt, the remains of black boots that had long ago been nibbled away by rats. Around his ankle was an iron cuff, linked by a chain to an iron ring in the wall. Just out of his reach was a bowl that might once have held water.

We stood silent. Then Mary, with a sigh, crumpled to the floor. Miss Halloway caught the lamp just before she fell. The rest of us stood there for what seemed like an interminable moment. Then we followed Miss Halloway, who carried Mary, up the stairs and into the autumn sunshine of the first floor, which seemed so strange to us, after the lamplight and the cellar. She put Mary on the sofa and brought her around with smelling salts, then gave us each a glass of sherry, which made Tollie cough.

Finally, Miss Halloway said, “What a terrible story.”

“Do you think she knew?” asked Tollie. “He must have been down there—”

“Dying,” I said. “For days.”

“She didn’t know,” said Eleanor. “I think we dreamed exactly what she saw. She didn’t know anything after Lord Collingswood hit him with the cane. I think she fainted, like Mary.”

“She must have thought he was dead,” said Tollie.

“And Lord Collingswood must have told everyone that they’d had a fight, and Raven had left for Switzerland,” I said.

“But she must have been here doing all sorts of things—getting dressed and walking in the garden, and eating her dinner—while he was dying below!” said Mary. She started to gasp and sob, and Miss Halloway waved the sal volatile under her nose again.

“Last summer, after I was hired as headmistress here,” she said, “I read that book Lucy thought was so dull, The History of Collingswood House. If you’d read a little farther, girls, you would have known that Lord Collingswood died in 1818, just a year later. He was said to have died of heart problems, but there was a rumor that he might have been poisoned—digitalis, which comes from foxgloves, is toxic in a high enough dose. Lady Collingswood created this school and specified that Lord Collingswood’s portrait was to be hung over the main staircase in perpetuity. I wonder, now, if that was her idea of a joke?”

“What happened to her?” I asked.

“She moved to France. Eventually she became a painter, not a great one but there is a picture of hers in the National Gallery. She particularly liked painting flowers.” Miss Halloway was silent for a moment. “We’ll have to give him a proper burial,” she said. “I think the dreams will stop now.”

The dreams did not stop, not as long as we stayed at Collingswood. But they changed character. For the rest of that year, we dreamed that we were with him—sitting by the fire in the parlor, browsing through books in the library and reading lines of poetry to one another, walking through the garden, where the roses were blooming, including the white rose called Lady Collingswood. He still murmured lines of poetry to us, we still felt kisses on our hands, even our shoulders, but the dreams no longer had the passion, the urgency, that we should not have experienced and that changed us, permanently. When we left Collingswood, Eleanor for a London season, Mary for her father’s parish, where she would teach Sunday school, Tollie for Newnham Teachers’ College, and me for Girton, we were no longer the girls who had glared at one another on the first day of term. We were older, we knew more about the joys and pains of the world, and we were friends.

The remains of Christopher Raven were buried in the garden, and a stone was placed over him with the words “Here lies the poet Christopher Raven, lover of Lady Collingswood, 1797–1817” carved on it, followed by lines of his own poetry:

Let her eyes guide me like bright stars, and bring
Me to the birthing-place of poetry.

I read some of his poetry later—he had published two books, called Aurora and Other Poems and Poems for the Rights of Man. He was good, and might have become great if he had lived, although he would never have been a Shelley or a Keats. But when I remembered his kisses in the dark, the whispered words, it did not matter. I do not think it mattered to her either. She loved the man, and the poet was part of the man. At least, that is what I think now that I have learned something of love—the love one has for a poet, like my Louis.

#

“We changed, all of us,” I said. “Eleanor became less high and mighty, for example.”

“Well!” she said, laughing. “I think I’m still both high and mighty. You should see me destroy those pipsqueak MPs on the question of votes for women! They fear my political dinners.”

“And Mary became more pious,” I added.

“I suppose that’s true,” said Mary. “I was frightened for a long time. I thought life might be like that, all passion and darkness. My father’s faith was reassuring—it made me feel safe. I think I became more judgmental for a while. I went to London once, while Louis was alive, and never visited you, Lucy. I’m sorry about that. But after little Charles died, I think I became more accepting of human frailty. I started to realize that God is there too, in the darkness as well as the light.”

We stared at her. “When did you get philosophical?” asked Eleanor.

Mary blushed, the red suffusing her cheeks until she looked like a late apple. “I’m getting older, I suppose. As we all are.” She turned to me. “And losing what you love—you must have known how Lady Collingswood felt.”

“Perhaps a little,” I said. “But I don’t think Louis is going to haunt anyone. Our love was an ordinary human love. Oh, he wrote me a poem or two, but I’m no Lady Collingswood. I went to visit his wife once, in France. You would think—insane asylum and all that. But it was perfectly ordinary, kind nurses looking after her. She had no idea who I was. What Christopher Raven and Lady Collingswood had—it was passion and poetry, and it had to end in violence. Could it have ended any other way? Can you imagine them in a cottage in the country, him chopping wood for the fire, her embroidering dishtowels?”

“Was he the ghost, or was she?” We looked at Tollie, startled by her question. “I mean, was he the one haunting us? Or was she the one, making us relive her experiences?”

“I’ve never thought of it like that,” I said.

“When I came back to Collingswood, I found something,” said Tollie. “It was summer and the school was almost empty. I came in here, and I don’t know why exactly, but I looked behind the painting of Lady Collingswood. There was something taped back there.”

“What did you find?” I asked. We all leaned forward, curious schoolgirls once more.

“Probably a letter of some sort,” said Eleanor.

“No, not a letter,” said Tollie. “I’ll show you.” She walked over to one of the desks that we had used, so many years ago, and lifted a framed picture that had been lying on it. She held it up so we could see.

Mary gasped, and Eleanor said, “That’s him. Exactly.”

It was just a watercolor of the head and shoulders, but there was the curling black hair, the brown cheeks, the laughing, mischievous eyes. In the bottom right-hand corner was written, in pen, Adela Collingswood.

“You can see that she loved him,” said Tollie. “If she were the ghost, she would have wanted him buried.”

“But she didn’t know he was in the cellar,” I said. “Listen to me! Here I am talking about the habits of ghosts. For all we know, it was both of them together, reliving their lives through us.”

“You changed too,” said Eleanor. “You’d been so focused on doing well. But after—that was when you started writing stories.”

“She did inspire me in the end,” I said. “Just as Miss Halloway wanted.”

“But Tollie didn’t change,” continued Eleanor. “Did you, Tollie? You’re the same old Tollie as you were back then. The Tollie who would have looked behind the painting. I would never have thought of that.”

“I don’t know,” said Tollie. “I suppose I am the same. Although I think I’m getting lines on my forehead from frowning at students!”

We heard a knock on the door. We had been so immersed in talking about the past that we all jumped.

“Ladies, dinner in half an hour,” called Miss Halloway.

“We’d better get dressed,” said Mary. “We don’t want to be late for dinner.”

“Why not?” said Eleanor. “Let them wait for us. After all, we have the guest of honor. They’re not going to start the dinner without her. Is that high and mighty enough for you, Lucy?” But she was smiling as she said it.

After that, the conversation turned to dresses. Eleanor lent Tollie the second-best dress she had brought, which must have cost as much as my entire wardrobe, although Tollie insisted that her gray merino was perfectly adequate. So even she looked sufficiently ladylike as we walked down the stairs, under the watchful eyes of Old Nosey, to the dining room.

My speech, “The Necessity for the Rights of Women,” went well and was generally applauded, with Eleanor giving a loud “Hear, hear!” The food was better than we had eaten as schoolgirls—no cabbage! But it was strange seeing women, some of whom I remembered, some from other years, sitting around the dining room tables, their faces turned toward me. In some of them, I could see the girls they had once been, like echoes.

It was a relief to be finished, to have fulfilled my duties and be free to go back up the stairs, undress, and lie down on the bed I had slept in so many years ago.

“Maybe you’ll all dream of him tonight,” said Tollie.

“I certainly hope not,” said Eleanor. “Once in a lifetime is enough of Christopher Raven, I think.”

#

The next morning, Mary left early to catch the train, and Eleanor had a meeting with the Fundraising Committee. But I had time before I needed to be at the station, so Tollie and I walked through the garden, smelling the late roses and coming at last to his grave.

“Christopher Raven,” I said. “I would not have minded dreaming about him again, just for old time’s sake.”

“But you didn’t?” asked Tollie.

“No, of course not,” I said. “But I’ve been thinking about my next book—my publisher keeps asking whether I’m working on it, and of course I need the money. He wants another Modern Diana, but I think I’m going to write about Lady Collingswood. I think I’ll call it Adela; or Free Love. That ought to shock everyone.”

“Lucy, do you think Eleanor’s right? Do you think I haven’t changed?”

I looked at her carefully. “I think you’ve changed less than the three of us. Maybe it’s because you stayed at Collingswood.”

“No, it’s not just that. It’s something else.”

Something in her voice made me say, “Tollie, is everything all right?”

“Yes, of course. It’s just that I didn’t want to tell the others. I still dream about him.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I still dream about him, every night. When I found that picture, I had it framed, and then I put it in my room, up on the third floor. And I started dreaming about him again. I thought if the three of you were here, sleeping in her room, under her picture, you would have the dreams too. But it was just me.” She paused for a moment, then knelt in front of the grave and traced the letters with her hand. “Maybe because I stayed here. I never married or had a child. I didn’t have the sort of life that you and Eleanor and Mary have. And the dreams came back. That’s what I have, a new set of students every year—and the dreams. Do you think that’s awful?”

“Some of your hair’s come down in back. Let me fix it for you.” I pinned her bun up again. I looked at her, kneeling there, with both pity and understanding. After a moment of silence, I said, “No, Tollie. I don’t think that’s awful at all. I think we have to take love where we can find it. That’s what I learned with Louis.”

“Thank you,” she said, standing again and feeling her hair, carefully. “I never can get it to stay up. You know, you always were my best friend.”

“You could have fooled me, the way you mooned after Eleanor Prescott!” I said. But I put my arm around her and kissed her cheek.

Later, as the cart bumped over the drive, I turned back to look at Collingswood House and waved to her, knowing that I might never see her again, knowing that I would probably never come back. I had a larger world to live in, a world that included grief and loss and loneliness, but also success and companionship. It included the cafés of London, and seeing my name on red leather in bookshop windows, and the Alps. I thought of Louie in Switzerland, coughing his lungs out and looking at me with the most beautiful eyes in the world, his father’s eyes. The world I lived in was more difficult, but I would not have traded it for hers.

Sometimes I would think of Tollie in her world of perpetual girlhood, dreaming of Christopher Raven, of poetry and burning kisses in the dark. And sometimes I would wish for the dreams myself. But I had a life to live, a book to write. I would always remember her this way, standing in front of Collingswood House and waving to me, under the ancient oaks.

#

© 2011 by Theodora Goss.
Originally published in Ghosts by Gaslight,
edited by Jack Dann & Nick Gevers.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Theodora Goss

Theodora GossTheodora Goss was born in Hungary and spent her childhood in various European countries before her family moved to the United States. Although she grew up on the classics of English literature, her writing has been influenced by an Eastern European literary tradition in which the boundaries between realism and the fantastic are often ambiguous. Her publications include the short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting(2006); Interfictions (2007), a short story anthology coedited with Delia Sherman; and Voices from Fairyland (2008), a poetry anthology with critical essays and a selection of her own poems. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Crawford, and Mythopoeic Awards, as well as on the Tiptree Award Honor List, and has won the World Fantasy and Rhysling Awards.

3 Responses »

  1. Damn beautiful, and tender. There’s so little for us romantics out there these days, unless one lowers their poetic standards to the level of “Twilight”. And after that, there is no use to reading bloody Byron.

  2. A lovely, gentle story. The final paragraph beautifully sums up the story.

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